My Go to References: Throwback Thursday Books

I doubt if today’s post will set off protests (or dancing) in the streets. As I think about books I’ve returned to and relied upon over the past thirty to forty years, I have to lift up my favorite reference works.

These are the books I go to for inspiration and insight, the books I pull out in researcher’s doubt or despair. Rarely do these books get quoted in a sermon or newsletter article, but they are often in the background. I don’t have to remember everything in these books. I just have to remember to look.

As you read, I hope you might think about your go to references for your vocation and/or hobbies. I’d be interested to hear what you find to be your reliable friends in print. I’m only going to get to one of my “go to’s” in this post, so I’ll come back to this topic in future TBT Books posts.

Photo by Element5 Digital on

When I started my seminary training, I first bought the state-of-the-art study Bible recommended by the faculty, The Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Then I purchased my Greek New Testament and translation tools. Next on the recommended list was Joachim Jeremias’ thick book, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. I suspect I have referred to Jeremias’ work at least once a month whenever I have served as a weekly preacher.

Jeremias was a German Lutheran theologian who was in 1900. He died just a few days after I began my first seminary semester. I learned to value his work on the parables of Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount and on the Lord’s Prayer. Jeremias had a gift for making his scholarly insights accessible in popular works – something struggling seminarians appreciate. He was active in trying to establish firmly the Jewishness of Jesus and the importance of understanding Jesus’ actual, lived context for useful interpretation of the Gospels.

It’s easy to take that last sentence for granted these days, when the Jewishness of Jesus is no longer politically or socially controversial. But Jeremias was a German Lutheran theologian who did his work following the Second World War. The Jewishness of Jesus had been regarded as heresy in the German Christian churches in the century leading up to the Nazi regime. There was an immense amount of recovery and repair required in Biblical studies and theology in the aftermath of the war.

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus is a detailed description of real life in and around the central city of Jewish reality. The subtitle of the book is “An Investigation into Economic and Social Conditions during the New Testament Period.” But that subtitle is a bit modest. Jeremias does give detailed descriptions of the industries, commerce, and trade relations that made Jerusalem tick economically. He describes the economic status of the various members of the city’s population as well.

Jeremias has no formal introduction to his work. There is one paragraph before he launches into the details. I think it’s worth quoting here. “In order to obtain a complete picture of the economic life of an ancient oriental city we must enquire into the nature of its industries, its commerce, and its traffic. Further, if the character of the city is to emerge from this enquiry, when we have established the existing conditions, we must then examine the causes which have brought them about” (page 2).

Jeremias stands in the tradition of what might be called a social science approach to the New Testament. He understands the value of data for accurate descriptions and the need for interpretation of that data to make the real human connections. He set me on that path as a preacher and student of the Bible forty years ago. I think that path has served the church and me well. I write today in part to express gratitude for that gift of direction and discernment.

Jeremias builds out from that economic assessment to offer a detailed map of social relationships and realities. He describes with authority the four main groups within first-century Judaism, as they are mentioned in the New Testament texts. He concludes with a large section on the “maintenance of racial purity.” In that section he delineates the various levels of the inside and outside dynamics of the Israelite community, ending with a discussion of the social position of women in that community.

I would think that even considering the phrase “the maintenance of racial purity” produced some stress for Jeremias. It does for me whenever I read that in the table of contents. But it was a social, economic, and religious reality in first-century Judah, and Jeremias offers a clear description of what he sees in the research.

How is this book useful? Most recently, for example, I have been thinking about and writing about the so-called “Cleansing of the Temple,” as recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter two. If you are interested in the details of that thinking and writing, you can read my text study posts that will be up on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of next week.

There is no shortage of scholarly work and reflection on the text and its background. But I knew that I needed to review Jeremias on this one, since that’s where all the work begins. Jeremias has eighteen entries in his index under the subject of “Temple.” In particular, he has a section that describes the “industries connected with the Temple.” That’s been most helpful in my review, since it impinges on Jesus’ actions in John 2.

It’s all about back story and motivation. Jesus didn’t have to study how the Temple system worked. He lived it and critiqued it. But I don’t live in first-century Jerusalem, so I need help with the cultural translation. Jeremias is an important source for making that translation.

This goes to the heart of what it means to do scriptural interpretation. I find that many lay Christians wish the Bible would work like a daily newspaper. You read it for information that can be immediately put to work in your life here and now. That may be guidance on how to live or make decisions. That may be inspiration to get you through a difficult time. It may simply be entertainment or irritation. But we don’t expect to do cultural translation in order to put the daily news “to work” for us.

The Christian Bible, and in particular the New Testament, does not work for us in that way. If we seek to take what we read or hear in the New Testament and simply apply it uncritically to our modern context, we do violence to the text. In classic Lutheran terms, we end up ruling God’s Word instead of being subject to God’s Word. Seeking as clear an understanding as possible of the text in front of me before I apply it is a way of being subject to that text. Attempting some measure of cultural translation is a way to be humble in the presence of the Divine revelation.

Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus was not a “final word” about anything. It was the state of research and conclusions of the time. There is much in that work which has been updated. There is much in that work which has been contradicted or refuted. And there is much in the work of Jeremias that remains useful and serves as a foundation for further exploration and reflection. I suspect that’s precisely what he might have hoped.

Reference works are not glamorous or provocative. They don’t get much notice or review outside of scholarly journals. All of the older reference works must be seen through the critical eyes of gender, race, class, orientation, and political history. The work of Jeremias is no exception. It is a place where I begin many times (never where I end up), and that fulcrum has been a stable point for me for an adult lifetime.

Let me ask again, just to reinforce my desire to know. What basic references have you found important in your vocation and/or avocation? What are your go to foundations as you begin a project, line of thought, or argument? I invite you to offer up some small thoughts of gratitude for the giants on whose shoulders we often casually stand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s